At a weekend getaway otherwise populated entirely by fortysomethings, 29-year-old Julie (Renate Reinsve) is subjected to some amateur analysis from a well-meaning elder. “Being young today is different,” the other woman observes, noting the increased pressure millennials face in daily life. “They have no time to think, there’s always something on the screen.” It’s the kind of generalization, notionally sympathetic but condescending, that members of the so-called anxious generation are used to hearing — irksome because there’s a kernel of truth to it, perhaps, but mostly because it’s way off the mark for many. Time to think isn’t the problem, time to decide is.
At first, Joachim Trier’s elegant, fine-grained character study “The Worst Person in the World” threatens to be a similarly lofty essay on the millennial condition, beginning as it does with an omniscient voiceover that talks us through various ill-fated or ill-considered impulses from Julie’s twenties with a hint of arch, amused contempt. She begins studying medicine, before deciding that psychology is her passion, sticking with that a short time before reinventing herself as a photographer; her romantic relationships, it seems, are similarly determined by whims and phases. You can practically hear the tutting conservative boomer op-eds in the background, venting against the children they raised with too few boundaries, the generation that just won’t stick at anything.
But Trier, the Norwegian behind such richly nuanced psychodramas as “Oslo, August 31st” and “Reprise,” is too compassionate a filmmaker for such cheap shots. As this melancholic romantic comedy faithfully follows its capricious protagonist through thick, thin and (mostly) somewhere in between, it turns into something lovely and wise: a gentle, unhurried paean to unrest and indecision, to making life wait, for better and worse. Perceptively written, pristinely assembled and beautifully performed by Reinsve and Anders Danielsen Lie — as the man who could be Julie’s soulmate if she ever decided to have one — this widely accessible arthouse pleasure deserves to become a touchstone film for many an ’80s and ’90s baby in Julie’s precarious boat.
Though it is another character altogether who refers to themselves as “The Worst Person in the World,” the title encapsulates how Julie beats herself up over failings and errors that are nothing more or less than human. The script, co-written by Trier with regular collaborator Eskil Vogt, is driven almost entirely by her changes and pauses of heart. A literary 12-chapter structure, bookended by a prologue and epilogue, may seem a cute affectation, but it aptly reflects both the episodic ebb and flow of her life, as well as the way Julie — who, sure enough, later adds “writer” to her list of career possibilities — tends to portray herself as a character in it.
Yet the hovering, uncertain rhythm of her existence is precisely what draws 44-year-old comic book artist Aksel (Danielsen Lie) to her: Her “flakiness,” he says, pulls him out of his intense, self-oriented bouts of creative concentration. From the beginning, they acknowledge the 15-year age gap between them, but the longer they live together, the less their references to “bad timing” feel like a joke. Aksel would like a family, that biggest and least reversible of life decisions, while Julie isn’t just not ready, but unconvinced she’ll ever want to be ready. “What has to happen first?” he asks her in frustration. “I don’t know,” she admits. “I need to do more first.”
Scores of adults of all ages, still waiting in vain for that precise official certification of their adulthood, will wince in recognition. What is the mark of a grownup? Is it having a baby? Buying a house? Do you have to truly know yourself? Can you ever? Dodging all these questions and elusive answers, Julie bounces from a solid (too solid, perhaps) relationship with Aksel into an extended flirtation with Eivind (a delightful Herbert Nordrum), a fellow drifting millennial whose insistence that he never wants children seems to be the one sure thing in his life. She and Eivind are ostensibly better matched, but their romance is an experiment in building a relationship without a foundation, each partner loath to hold the other down. As her 30th birthday passes, Julie begins to wonder — like a less insistent, less irritating Carrie Bradshaw — if her stalling thus far has been a life choice in itself.
In essaying Julie, a character at once watery and opaque, shaped by everything around her but vocally resistant to influence, Reinsve has a tricky assignment that she nails with remarkable fluidity and grace. She’s the same inconstant person from one chapter to the next, maturing and receding in alternate stages, sympathetic despite (or because of) her maddening, willowy will. She and Nordrum play out a performative meet-cute that is the wittiest, most perverse take on that that romcom standby in years, but it’s her tense, close chemistry with Danielsen Lie that gives “The Worst Person in the World” its fragile heart, particularly as laconic Generation X-er Aksel admits to his own existential insecurities, and fears for a future that won’t include him.
Perhaps it’s through Aksel that Trier speaks most directly: “I grew up in a time when culture was passed along through objects, and we could live among them,” he shrugs. “The Worst Person in the World” doesn’t dwell on hackneyed debates over the perils of living online, but it does ache for simple, tangible pleasures: the heat of touch and spontaneous human connection, and the luxury of stillness. In the film’s most rapturous set piece, for several minutes, the world freezes around Julie as she saunters across Oslo to meet a lover, one of only two moving people in the world. The breeze teases the hair of petrified pedestrians as she skips past them, unbothered and elated. Just for once, for a brief, enchanted moment, time waits for Julie, and she has never been happier.